Why? To help unleash a revolution in telephony. He was the man who brought telephone access to rural India. Remember the PCO/STD booths that dotted street corners long before the mobile phones invaded our lives? Yes. Meet the man who made it possible. Take a bow to Sam Pitroda.
His origin in Gujarat, Satya grew up in Titlagarh in Orissa, went to a boarding school in Baroda and travelled to the US for his second masters. It was remarkable. No one in his family had ever been to a university and many couldn't even read or write. He too would have ended up that way except that his parents were exceptionally sure that their son should learn English and get good education. There’s a small story behind that his father, a railway labourer turned nail-maker for the Railways. Read it in the book!
In love with Physics, Maths and Anu School instilled in the young Satya a fascination for Gandhi. In college, he fell in love with physics, mathematics and an upper caste beau, Anu, who he later married. When America beckoned him, he learned to eat the way ‘they’ ate and the way ‘they’ washed. Pork, beef, anything was passé so long as it gave him the feel that he was like ‘them.’
Education in America was mind-blowing. The classy tale of how a professor tells an open classroom that he can’t crack a problem, and how he turns to a student to solve it, is something you don't get to see in India. Other narratives add sparkle. How when stranded on the highway, Sam calls an Arun Patel, randomly picked from the directory, only to find that he was an old pal. How he takes an elderly landlady for pizza one night and her son flew down many miles to fight with him over that.
He speaks with respect of his life at GTE (now Verizon). He tells you about the day his boss informs him that while his English speaking is fluent, his English writing is awful and how he, Sam, promises to learn to write in six months flat. The parts where his father asks him what did he study and what work he does is touching. And when the older man tells his son that if he was working so hard, he should be working for himself, it turns Sam’s life around.
He then goes on to co-start Wescom Inc., albeit at a minority shareholder. He tells you how he bought a company car for an employee and what happened when the man drove the car home over the weekend. So is the tale about how he sells his remarkable company to become a multi-millionaire.
Re 1 salary for ten long years
Sam then returns to work in India. His meeting with Indira and Rajiv, his convincing Rajiv that telecom would change the face of India and his slow realisation of how the Indian system works on patronage are outstanding. He worked for a Re 1 salary in C-DOT for ten long years. Stories at C-DOT including that of a father, who comes to the C-DOT office to check what his son was doing so late in a government job and how Sam shows him around and tells him to be proud of his son, are touching. Sam tried to change the culture; asking people not to stand up when he walked in, himself waiting in the queue at the lift, hugging his driver, holding a meeting with the janitors, the union leaders and providing them with access.
Other tales are equally mind-boggling. How India’s only prime minister who had ever had a day job, Rajiv Gandhi, spoke to Anu about Sam. How the chairman of ITI was in Delhi for three days to clear a file allowing him to go to Paris. How athlete Milkha Singh had turned up in his office for a telephone connection. How Sam got business for India from Jack Welch when the legendary GE head came to India scouting for business. How he asked Rajiv about Bofors are all mind-boggling.
When Sam Pitroda had his bye-pass, scores of employees queued up to give blood. His drivers refused to go home even for Diwali. These leave a lump in the throat. The man who gave up US citizenship to serve India deserves a thumbs up. Yes, I know it's an autobiography, but the admiration that I had for the man long years ago, has now turned into a liking.